Last month, the Proctors deregistered United Women, formerly known as UN Women Oxford UK Society. The student society had become the subject of national controversy after it disinvited Amber Rudd, former Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, less than thirty minutes before she was scheduled to speak in Seventh Week of Hilary.
Free speech supporters – often with very limited understanding of the controversy and no connection to Oxford – went out of their way to welcome United Women’s deregistration. The Free Speech Union, a national grassroots campaign established in February by social commentator Toby Young, celebrated the decision as if it were one of their first major victories.
We could argue back and forth about the paradox of tolerance – whether a student society that doesn’t subscribe to free speech should be allowed to exist in a world of free speech – and cover a decades-old debate. Suffice to say that it isn’t entirely clear that ‘we support free speech’ and ‘your society should be deregistered’ are consistent creeds.
Moreover, that response sidesteps the heart of the issue. The Proctors’ intervention was only possible because United Women had opted to register with the University. If a silver lining can come out of the ordeal, then it should be to shed light on the broken relationship between the University and its registered societies.
The current system hands the Proctors vast oversight over registered societies to the detriment of free speech, while producing a perverse incentive against student welfare just when support is most needed. The United Women debacle exposed this – and should lead us to call for a rethink.
How the current system works
Under the current system, student-run societies can register with the University, which enrols them onto the online Register of Student Clubs and enables them to use ‘Oxford University’ in their name.
In return, a registered society must accept a template constitution that imposes stringent regulations on all sorts of trivialities. For example, a registered society’s committee cannot have more than eight members; it must find a Senior Member to sponsor them; Oxford Brookes students cannot constitute more than a fifth of its membership; and the society is required to compile and submit regularly onerous accounts and reports – bureaucracy which smaller clubs may find difficult to navigate.
The Proctors – mentioned twenty-three times in the seven-page template – are given vast oversight of the society, including the power to deregister it unilaterally, which was exercised in last month’s judgment.
Plenty of societies are not registered: think the Oxford PPE Society or Oxford Women in Business. Nonregistered societies can still register with Oxford SU, purchase stalls at the Freshers Fair, and book rooms in colleges. They are indistinguishable from registered societies in all but name.
So registration is a one-sided relationship, with little incentive for societies to sign up. Nonregistered societies get maximum freedom, while registered societies survive only under the regulation-heavy benevolence of the University.
This is bad for the independence of registered societies. The constitution’s inflexibility means that societies can hardly adapt their internal organisation to meet their needs. And with the power that the Proctors have wielded over United Women, which registered society will be the next to invite a speaker that disagrees with the University’s views, or that is liable to stir controversy in the national press?
According power over expression is exactly what free speech is against – yet that is the system with which plenty of societies voluntarily comply today.
The formal recognition that registration accords to a society also means that the current system necessarily implicates the University with the affairs of registered societies. When a controversy unfolds, this lands the University in an awkward position: it must publicly weigh in on the actions of its students while meeting its obligations towards their welfare.
That was the concern raised in motions passed by multiple common rooms at the end of Hilary, urging the University to apologise to committee members of United Women. At the time of the controversy, the names of implicated students were reported by the national press, incurring a significant emotional toll and compromising their future prospects. Amidst this, the University issued a public statement condemning the no-platforming, reportedly without forewarning or consulting implicated students.
The common rooms letter alleged that the University only added to the students’ difficulties, rather than caring for their wellbeing when they needed it most.
Time for a change?
Rather than celebrating the exercise of this system, supporters of free speech and those unsettled by the University’s response should be united in urging the University to rethink it.
One solution could be to deregister every society, and provide only a bare-bones registration for those clubs that benefit the most from the ‘Oxford University’ label – such as sports societies, which already register under a separate process.
Ceasing formal recognition means that when a controversy attracts national attention, the University can absolve itself of any association or responsibility, such that any behaviour from student societies cannot bring the University into disrepute. This would liberate the University solely to support student welfare when it is most needed. Nor would any student society self-police its activities by worrying about its relationship with the Proctors, a positive influence for free speech and for a vibrant society scene on campus.
Students that offend university regulations on conduct can be disciplined as individual students using existing policies and procedures, rather than through punishing a society’s entire committee. Room bookings, which presently operate through criteria separate to society registration, would be unaffected by the change. Similarly, students would still have to notify the University of events likely to attract widespread interest.
The only difficulty is financing. Registered societies have access to university grants of up to £1,000, including a start-up fund of up to £200.
These grants are already limited: they are intended as a source of income of last resort, and usually cannot be used for long-term running costs, ‘private social activities’ or ‘political activities’, however they’re defined. Many societies prefer to raise funds through JCR motions, membership fees or donations.
But there’s no reason why the University should be administering these grants. Like at other universities, funding could be delegated to Oxford SU, whose society registration requirements are looser. Oxford SU’s block grant could be increased to accommodate for the new responsibility.
This was the central point missed by the discussion: if United Women had not been registered, it could not have been condemned or disciplined. At least United Women can find some comfort in knowing that, outside of the registration system, it can now continue as a nonregistered society, with little difference in its functioning and much more independence from the University than before. After all, this is what a certain ‘Oxford Conservative Association’ did when it was deregistered in 2012, until it was allowed to reregister a year later.